The concept of “the hero’s journey” has come to us in popularized form from the work of the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell. It has served as a point of inspiration for many works of creative achievement, my own included.
Often described in a framework of 8 to 17 stages, Campbell summarized the basic idea as follows in his seminal 1949 work: The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
I’ve long been fascinated by the whole field of comparative mythology and by Campbell’s project to identify a “monomyth,” or basic underlying pattern common to mythological and religious stories across time and cultures. I love how this project goes both wide and deep: the wide survey of so many stories with all their peculiar, fascinating differences, and the deep quest to identify common fundamentals that unite these seemingly diverse stories.
It’s an education in the human experience across the globe and back in time before even the days of written word that brings one face to face with that which has mattered most to our human ancestors.
That said….I wonder about how to apply some of the basic ideas of the hero’s journey not looking back at what has mattered to others throughout the distant past, but looking ahead to the future of one’s own life in modern society.
To put it in the form of a simple question: how do you live a true hero’s journey today?
In our advanced scientific civilization where a “region of supernatural wonder” doesn’t make sense as it would have thousands of years ago and technological advances have shifted the basic nature of many of the problems humans face, what would it mean to create and live a hero’s journey?
While I don’t intend to offer a full answer here (especially as my sense is that there could be countless variations on the theme), here are 4 stages that I think could be part of many modern hero journeys:
- The Choice of Adventure
While Campbell spoke of a “call to adventure,” I think the real challenge is to choose adventure.
It’s easy to stay confined in the safety and security of the familiar and wait until/if one receives some sort of “call.” But the true heroes of today make a choice to pursue a more adventurous path, going off to explore the unknown and developing the qualities of perseverance and grit that enable them to stay the course.
- The Mentor’s Guidance
Along the way, it is useful to find a mentor. Again, the old stories may say that a master will appear (if the student is ready?). But the true heroes of today take initiative to make themselves ready and sees out the best mentors to be found.
No matter how innovative or creative the path one is pursuing, there is wisdom to be gained from those who have come before. (For further thoughts on this, see my video Thinking Beyond Systems). The challenge is finding the right mentors, and then figuring out how to go further along one’s own original path.
- Discovering/Making Something New and of Value
This, I believe, is the work of the true modern hero, the work to create something new and of value.
And this work, of course, is a journey and adventure in itself. There will be missteps and mistakes and failures along the way, but success comes in the form of ultimately producing values, including the value of living an authentic, unique life.
- The Exchange Among Hero Leaders
Campbell spoke of the hero’s “return,” coming back to the beginning transformed with something to share.
While I’m not sure “returning” is necessary, I do think that the next step after producing values is sharing those with others, a true exchange among leaders where everyone has the opportunity to be leader of their unique offering and gain from the exchange.
And then, I think the process is a spiral — and one does in a sense “return” to stage one and the choice to seek out a new adventure.
What’s your take on the hero’s journey? How do you think one pursues a hero’s’ journey today?